Ferdinand II: a Catholic fundamentalist

Joseph Heintz the Elder: Emperor Ferdinand II with a court dwarf, 1604

Ferdinand II was noted for his extreme piety, which at times verged on bigotry, and developed a fanatical zeal in his defence of the interests of the Catholic Church. He saw the travails of ruling as divine ordeals which had to be overcome according to the best of his knowledge and belief.

Joseph Heintz the Elder: Emperor Ferdinand II with a court dwarf, 1604

Descended from the Styrian line of the Austrian Habsburgs, Ferdinand was born in Graz on 9 July 1578. He was the second son of Archduke Charles of Inner Austria and Maria of Bavaria.

Ferdinand was marked for life by the religious fundamentalism that surrounded him as he grew up. The court at Graz around 1600 was the centre of the Counter Reformation in the Austrian Lands. The Jesuits there kept watch over the strict Tridentine interpretation of Catholic doctrine. They also supervised the new university in Graz, founded in 1585, and the seven-year-old Ferdinand was enrolled honoris causa as its first student. The young archduke’s education was subsequently entrusted to the Jesuits in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt, the elite Catholic training centre in the German-speaking countries. He owed this connection with Bavaria, the protecting power of the Counter Reformation in the Empire, to his mother. The Jesuits exercised considerable influence over the future emperor throughout his life; as confessors they were also his closest advisors in important political questions.

Following the early death of his father in 1590 Ferdinand succeeded him as ruler of the Inner Austrian dominions at the age of only twelve. For the time being, however, the affairs of state lay in the hands of a governing council of guardians. The territory he had inherited was referred to as Inner Austria and comprised Styria, Carinthia and Carniola as well as the Habsburg territories on the Upper Adriatic and in Friuli. In 1596 Archduke Ferdinand attained his majority.

Ferdinand made no secret of his intention to make the uncompromising defence of the Catholic religion the determining principle of his rule. On a pilgrimage to Loreto, a shrine to the Virgin Mary in Italy, he made a vow to re-Catholicize his dominions whatever the cost, affirming that he would rather rule over a desert than over a land full of heretics.

Ferdinand was an absolute proponent of mono-confessionalism, demanding that his subjects and the aristocracy should obey their ruler in matters of faith. In the Early Modern era religion was not a private affair, and neither was the totalitarian claim of state power on religion an exclusively Catholic speciality; it was also asserted in Protestant countries.

Ferdinand’s methods were militant, aggressive and uncompromising. His father, Archduke Charles, had harboured similar ideas but had had to deal with a strong nobility which largely espoused the Reformation. Charles had often been forced to back down for reasons of practical politics, since he needed the consent of the Estates to levy taxes in order to deal with the threat of Turkish incursions.

Nonetheless, with the ground having been prepared by his father, Ferdinand now dared to risk open confrontation. The notorious Reformation commissions toured his dominions at Ferdinand’s behest. His subjects were faced with the choice of converting to Catholicism or going into exile. Protestant priests and teachers were banished and the structure of the Protestant Church destroyed. At first the nobility were allowed to keep their religious affiliation, but Ferdinand overtly favoured Catholics when it came to allotting positions and awarding titles. It was made quite plain at the archducal court that conversion to Catholicism would be richly rewarded, especially in view of the increasing likelihood that Ferdinand would soon become emperor and head of the dynasty.

Martin Mutschlechner